Peggy Sue Dunigan

Smokey Joe’s Café

By - Mar 12th, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Peggy Sue Dunigan

The sparks on stage opening weekend for Smokey Joe’s Café at the Skylight Opera were more than electric. Every facet of this musical revue was on fire. Celebrating the most prolific songwriting team from the ‘50s and ‘60s, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the review celebrates about 30 of their songs with blazing style.

This ground breaking team infused R & B with rock & roll, adding in melodies of jazz and cabaret, and produced 14 #1 hits over four decades. Leiber and Stoller have influenced many songwriters, including Lennon and McCartney, and the duo was inducted into both the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

While the audience will perhaps remember “Kansas City,” “Love Potion #9,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog,” the revue reverberates through the theater even more creatively on less familiar tunes. The sensual “Trouble,” with a white curtain for a backdrop, and “Don Juan,” which innovatively uses a purple boa, are mesmerizing. Throw in the gospel numbers “D.W.Washburn” together with “Saved” and the staged burned out the fires of hell. The second-act highlights include “Teach Me How to Shimmy,” “I Am a Woman” and the oft immortalized “Stand By Me.” Although every song during the two hour revue could stand-alone.

Set in an imaginative post World War II industrial steel framework, complete with a silver catwalk and spiral staircase accented in red, the scenes smoke with creativity. Seamless stage maneuvers and costume changes keep the audience on the edge of their seat while Donna Drake’s compelling choreography and musical director Jamie Johns keep fanning the flames throughout this revue. Stacey Galloway (costume designer), Annmarie Duggan (lighting designer) and Mikhail Moore (sound designer) add their own brand of magic. The six-piece band is a pleasure to watch perform in the background, adding another element of perfection.

The talent of each of the nine cast members is also red-hot. Although four are familiar to the Skylight, the remaining five are making their debut to Milwaukee’s delight. Each member has their own individual moment on stage, but alone or together this cast creates combustion every minute of the show, whether slow burning sexy or snap crackling fun. With song or dance, this cast is dynamic and consumes the stage. The audience could barely contain themselves on Saturday night as clapping and cheers combined with lip-syncing in the Cabot Theatre.

Afterwards, the free cabaret performance in the Skylight Bar glows with A Nite of 1000 Songs, which includes Ray Jivoff, Liz Baltes, Chris Klopatek and, again, the untiring Jamie Johns at the piano. This becomes a wonderful encore to Smokey Joe’s Café, the high energy, hot ticket in Milwaukee. VS

Smokey Joe’s Café is performed in the Cabot Theater at the Broadway Theatre Center through April 1, with the cabaret performance following. Tickets: 414-291-7800

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